Nine months of winter and three months of hell

 

A Spanish proverb says, ‘Hasta el cuarenta de mayo, no te quites el sayo’ which literally means ‘until the 40th of May, don’t take your tunic off’.  The saying refers to the fact that hot weather here almost always arrives the second week in June, when suddenly the temperature increases from20ºC(68ºF) to 38ºC(100ºF) and stays there until the end of September.

My friends from more temperate areas of the world are always amazed at how short and hot the Spanish summer is.  Here we have an expression to describe the climate: ‘ nueve meses de invierno y tres meses de infierno’ (nine months of winter and three months of hell’.

The arrival of summer inSpain is often seen as a catastophic event for the consumption of red Rioja because suddenly, red wine drinkers switch to water or the ubiquitous ‘caña’ or glass of draft beer.  White wine is an option, but here it usually means a glass of Rueda or albariño from Rías Baixas. We’ve already discussed that.

Red Rioja lovers have an alternative: drinking glasses of chilled ‘cosechero’ Rioja.  As I’ve mentioned here, ‘cosechero’ reds are produced using carbonic maceration, also called whole berry fermentation, where the red grapes are not crushed to release the juice.  The temperature in the vat makes the juice ferment inside the grape and the carbon dioxide produced causes the skin to burst, releasing an intensely fruity wine.

Most bars in Rioja served chilled ‘cosechero’ all year around but in my opinion, they’re best enjoyed in warm weather.

Some of my favorites are:

Murmurón (produced by Bodegas Sierra Cantabria (http://www.eguren.com/inicio/?acc=home&idc=1)

Muñarrate (Bodegas Solabal – no website)

Medrano Irazu (http://www.bodegasmedranoirazu.com/html-ing/history.html)

These wines are usually available from 0,60€ to 1€ a glass in local bars.

A step up in price but definitely worth it, is ‘A mi manera’ (My Way), a homage to Frank Sinatra produced by Benjamín Romeo at Bodega Contador (currently no website in spite of getting 100 points from Robert Parker for one of his wines).  Come to think of it, with such high scores, why does he need a website?

Unfortunately, Rioja wineries don’t usually ship cosechero reds abroad because of their limited shelf life (they’re best up to 12 months after bottling), so to try them you’ll have to come here.

A more sacrilegious approach, frowned on in Rioja but widely accepted in the rest of Spain, is adding ingredients to red wine to make it more palatable in hot weather.  Sangría is the most famous of these products, but the sugar, brandy, gin and cinnamon used in most sangrías can give you a nasty hangover if you overdo it.

Two of my favorites are tinto de verano and kalimotxoTinto de verano is red wine with 7-Up or soda water, with a slice of orange as a garnish and served on the rocks.  Kalimotxo is the vinous alternative to Red Bull: half red wine and half coke, great for sustaining all-night, outdoor dancing at Spain’s many summer festivals such as San Fermín. Don’t frown until you’ve tried it; it’s really good!

Spaniards look forward all year to the arrival of summer, but by the end of June are complaining about having to stay indoors during the hottest time of day (from 11am to 5pm).

We open our windows at night to let the cool air inside.  We close them and lower the blinds at 9 or 10am to keep the hot air outside.  This simple piece of advice would have probably saved the lives of hundreds of northern Europeans during the heat wave of 2003. We learned this from  800 years of Arab occupation (from 711 to 1492 AD).

I have months of really hot weather ahead of me, so it will be golf from 8 to 12 and a long siesta in the afternoon.  At night, a few glasses of chilled ‘cosechero’ in the old part of town.  That’s how I beat the heat!

 

 

Florentino Martínez: ‘I’m a man of the soil’

Florentino Martínez

Florentino Martínez was the star of this month’s tasting organized by our local newspaper LA RIOJA. Martínez, like many other Rioja winery owners, got his start in the wine business as a grape farmer who gradually got into winemaking and ageing, although at heart he remains a cosechero, specializing in young wines made by carbonic maceration or whole berry fermentation.

The best way to describe Florentino is ‘campechano’, someone who is affable, easy-going and uncomplicated.  He’s never taken a public speaking course but his talk was brilliant, from the heart, laced with personal anecdotes and jokes about a project that is his passion.

Florentino has been a friend for a long time and I’ve always appreciated his honesty and generosity.  I remember last winter I was in calle Laurel with some friends when we ran into Florentino with some Brazilian customers outside a bar.  He asked the owner of the bar for a bottle of Luberri which he opened and gave to my group.  You don’t forget gestures like that. 

One of his stories is his description of the Christmas Day suppers that took place in his father’s winery (back then, surely an underground cellar) when the family would drink the young red from the latest vintage for the first time directly from the vat.

His company was founded in Elciego in Rioja Alavesa in1991 with his wife and two daughters, following several projects with others that didn’t work out as he had planned.  The company farms 35 hectares in an area between Elciego and Laguardia.

We tasted the five wines made by the winery.

Luberri red 2010: ‘Luberri’ is Basque – ‘lur (earth) + ‘berri’ (new). 95% tempranillo and 5% viura (a white varietal whose high acidity is traditionally blended in small amounts with red to give the wine more zing).

‘New earth’  is appropriate as a brand name and its spirit came through clearly throughout the tasting.

The whole berry fermentation process starts by emptying whole bunches of grapes into a vat.  This differs from the classic method of red winemaking where the stems are removed and the grapes lightly crushed before fermentation.

With carbonic maceration, the fermentation process starts inside the grapes and after 7 or 8 days, the skins burst, releasing the juice.  Wines made this way are intensely fruity but sometimes smell a little like hydrogen sulphide (rotten eggs) because the winemaker needs to protect the grapes with a dose of SO2. The high pH and low acidity don’t allow  these wines to age like a crianza or reserva but it doesn’t matter because the whole idea is to drink them while they’re young and fresh.

To me, one of Luberri’s achievements is producing a carbonic maceration red that has none of these unpleasant aromas that are a big stumbling block for most CM wines’ wider appeal.  It was clearly the best one I had ever tasted, with a bright cherry color, an elegant aroma that reminded me of strawberry bubble gum with some notes of mint, and  fresh and fruity on the palate.

Seis de Luberri 2008.  100% tempranillo.

 Seis (‘Six’) refers obliquely to the fact that the wine has been aged for six months in oak.

In Rioja, producers aren’t allowed to make any allusion to oak on the label unless the wine has been aged for at least 12 months.  This attitude is enforced in the Regulatory Council by the large wineries with many thousands of barrels who believe that the ‘crianza’ category has to be protected to the detriment of younger wines.  This often means that wineries put practically all their effort into their oak aged wines without paying much attention to younger wines.

Florentino made it a point to defend making good young Riojas, stating that they don’t necessarily come from the worst grapes – a powerful statement.

With today’s increased emphasis on fresh fruit, and with prices falling through the floor due to the effects of a very persistant economic crisis, wineries would be wise to release more unoaked or only slightly oaked reds. They would certainly hit sensitive price points that way.

Back to Seis: Light, brilliant cherry color, flowery with red fruit and oak – a little too much of the latter for my taste – with balance, elegance and freshness on the palate.

Biga de Luberri crianza 2008.  100% tempranillo.

Medium ruby color, a floral nose with just a hint of oak. (‘With Seis’ the oak seemed to come through more strongly.) Light and fresh on the palate.

Monje Amestoy de Luberri reserva 2006.  90% tempranillo, 10% ‘others’ (almost surely cabernet sauvignon but Florentino’s lips were sealed). Intense ruby, red fruit on the nose, reminding me of cranberries, and toast but not overpowering.  On the palate, like the other wines in the range, it had a light, crisp, balanced mouthfeel.

Cepas Viejas (Old Vines) 2006.  100% tempranillo. The grapes for Cepas Viejas come from vines over 75 years old that produce about 3.500 kilos per hectare, a little more than half the maximum yield authorized for red grapes in Rioja.

Intense ruby.  Dark fruit, with mineral notes on the nose.  On the palate, clean, with good acidity.  Once again, the balance between oak and fruit was perfect.

Cepas Viejas was my second favorite of the evening and showed me that Luberri’s preference for light, balanced, easy to drink reds went straight through the range.

 My thought on leaving the tasting was that more and more of the Riojas I had tasted recently were getting back to the elegant, light style of winemaking that was popular here before the 1990s when wineries began soaking their wines in new oak.

 As a marketing guy, I also liked the fact that the five wines were linked with ‘de Luberri’ (by Luberri) on the label.  This is a big help to consumers who would otherwise be confused by five different brand names.

To me, Luberri’s wines proved that complexity is not the enemy of elegance.  I hope this is the way of the future.

Familia Monje Amestoy, Camino Rehoyos, 01340 Elciego (Álava)

www.luberri.com

U.S. Importer:  De Maison Selections  www.demaisonselections.com

Photo credit:  www.luberri.com